For many New Jerseyans, life in mid-winter is nothing if not stressful. The days are short, often overcast, and temperatures unpredictable. This year two big snowstorms hit in early December and all indications are more may come. Calendar-driven holiday preparations and the area’s perennial traffic tie-ups only worsen the situation.

How can one escape the seasonal affective disorder and overall stress levels that affect so many of us at this time of year?

Bang on a drum. That’s one way.

Each year, for the past three years, on or about December 21, the winter solstice, Elena Fernandez of Skillman runs a drum circle at the Skillman-based Princeton Center for Yoga and Health.

People enter the drum circles as rank strangers. But by the end of two or two-and-a-half hours, they’re old friends, says Fernandez. While you may not go away from a drum circle feeling invincible, at least you’ll leave feeling better than when you arrived. There is some deep-rooted psychological and therapeutic value to banging on a drum, in the company of others, just for the hell of it.

"Every circle is different because different people come to them, but they always turn out to be wonderful, unifying community building experiences," says Fernandez. "People are smiling and laughing by the end — it’s like everybody’s old friends. And since everybody’s an equal, from the most experienced person playing there to the novice, it’s just a great community builder."

Fernandez says she has read that drum circles are catching on in the corporate world, as exercises in team building. Apparently Toyota USA has a drum room in its U.S. headquarters to help people work together more effectively. Drum circles are also being organized for at-risk children and in senior centers, Fernandez reports.

Fernandez’s background includes many years teaching at the Waldorf School in Princeton. She earned her associate’s degree in Fine Arts from Rockland County Community College. Born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico and Montclair, Fernandez says her fascination with drumming began with her dad and brother playing drums in her youth. However it wasn’t until eight years ago, when she was living in Cambridge, Massachussetts, that she tried it herself. This was when her obsession with drums and drumming — particularly African drums like the djembe — began.

Fernandez works at the Whole Earth Center in Princeton two days a week, leads another drum circle in New Hope once a month, and teaches drum techniques from the home she shares with her husband, David Fradin, who teaches kripalu yoga at PCYH.

"I always liked the rhythms. My father played bongos and my brother played congas, and once I started doing it myself, I found it really touched something within me, and I just had to keep going with it," she explains. She adds she studied with a teacher in Cambridge for several years, and has attended workshops run by the late Babatunde Olatunje, as well as Arthur Hull, a Santa Cruz, California-based drum instructor who leads workshops for drum circle facilitators, which is really what Fernandez considers herself.

"I couldn’t find many good teachers around New Jersey, so I continued to study on my own and then approached Deborah Metzger about a drum circle at the Princeton Center," she explains, adding she has been leading once-a-month drum circles there, usually on Friday evenings, for almost two years now.

What does Fernandez get out of the experience? Why does she do this? It surely isn’t for the money, she jokes.

"I meet a lot of fantastic people doing this, and I love people, so that means a lot to me. At the end of a drum circle session, I feel really good, really gratified, and some people come up to me and tell me, `I just had the greatest time I’ve ever had in my life!’ I see the spark in them that I felt when I started to get into this, and I know it’s changed my outlook on life, and it’s something I want to share."

Ultimately, she adds, "I think it’s better than any anti-depressant medication anyone could take, and at the end of a drum session, I’m feeling as good or better than I would after an hour or so of yoga."

Not surprisingly, Fernandez has several dozen different drums and percussion instruments in her house, most of which she brings to the once-a-month drum circles at PCYH. She also leads a second monthly drum circle at Little Shul by the River in New Hope.

Fernandez’s next drum circle is Friday, January 16, at 8 p.m. at PCYH in Skillman. "Drumming has a brightening effect on the short days, but it has a brightening effect no matter what the days are like," she argues. "People who come to the drum circle will have their stresses relieved, they’ll feel like they’re part of a community and they’ll have a great time," Fernandez predicts.

Not far away in Freehold Township, Maire Tashjian leads several drum circles each month in Monmouth County. Born and raised in Freehold, Tashjian leads the One Spirit Percussion Ensemble, an all-woman group that performs in Monmouth, Middlesex, and Mercer counties.

How did a nice Irish woman like Tashjian become so enamored with Brazilian samba, Afro-Cuban, and West African drumming?

It’s a long story, she’ll tell you, but she began playing drums in the Freehold High School Marching Band. Since she was a teenager, her passion for and knowledge of an assortment of drums and drum stylings has expanded greatly, she says. Like Fernandez, she also specializes in African drumming techniques, and knows the djembe well.

Since her obsession with drums began, Tashjian has studied and performed with Brazilians Ivo Araujo, Amelia Biancardi and the late African drum master Olatunji. Her Onespirit Percussion Ensemble grew out of a drum circle she leads at Camp Sacajawea, a Girl Scout camp in Farmingdale, near Freehold.

"I’ve been into drumming since high school, and then got interested in hand drumming in 1993," Tashjian says, adding she started performing in 1996. "I loved the rhythms and the culture behind the rhythms, and I loved the arrangements." Amy Schindler, her partner in the folk duo Virago, adds guitar or flute treatments to the sound of six or seven drums beating out rhythms.

"We have the foundation for our music with the percussion, and then Amy will play cavaquino [a small Brazilian guitar] or flute on top of that. You don’t often see that in a percussion ensemble," Tashjian says. Onespirit also makes use of a variety of whistles as well as ankle bells, the African djembe, Brazilian tambourem, congas, caixa, a Brazilian snare drum, and the cuica, a drum played with a damp rag. The cuica is featured prominently in Simon and Garfunkel’s "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard."

Tashjian, who also does percussion workshops and performances in schools, says she always wanted to have her own group. The all-woman One Spirit Percussion Ensemble played at last summer’s Clearwater Festival in Asbury Park and the group has performed several times at Harry’s Roadhouse, a new club in Asbury.

Asked if her plan initially was to exclude men from the Onespirit Percussion Ensemble, Tashjian said no. "I feel it this way: women need to reclaim that part of them, because in pre-Christian times, women were the drummers," she argues, "there’s a great book by Lane Redmond, `When The Drummers Were Women.’ It wasn’t until Christianity came into being that all of that changed."

In the process of rehearsals, Tashjian, Schindler and others in Onespirit realized they had something unique because they were all women. "We realized it was unique, so we’ve kept it all women," Tashjian says.

Tashjian co-leads a co-ed drum circle the first Sunday evening of each month at Camp Sacajawea in Farmingdale, and also leads a woman-only group on the second Sunday of each month. "In my own experience, drumming is uplifting," Tashjian says. "It takes me out of my own head."

Drum Circles, Princeton Center for Yoga and Health, Montgomery Professional Center, 50 Vreeland Drive, Skillman, 609-924-7294. Meets third Friday of each month. $10. Friday, January 16, February 20, March 19, at 8 p.m. More information, go to www.princetonyoga.com or Monmouth drum circles, visit www.viragomusic.com

Monmouth County Drum Circle, Camp Sacajawea, Farmingdale, 732-616-0497. With Maire Tashjian and Skip Leib. Meets first Sunday of each month, 7 to 9 p.m. One Spirit Community Drum Group (women-only), with Maire Tashjian, meets second Sunday of each month, 7 to 9 p.m.

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